Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

St Thomas the Apostle
July 18, 2016, 10:52 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, July 3rd 2016

St Thomas

The Gospel story is familiar to us. It is Easter Day, and the disciples have been visited by the risen Lord. But for some reason- no point in speculating what it may have been- Thomas was absent. He did not have that experience. The others tell him, “We have seen the Lord!”, and Thomas can see that evidently they believe it. Their joy must have been manifest, in contrast to the despair following the crucifixion. But compared to the certainty that Jesus was dead (Luke tells us in his Gospel that all the friends of Jesus stood at a distance, witnessing the crucifixion, even if only John was brave enough to stand by Mary at the foot of the cross)- compared with the evidence of his own eyes, what was the value of second-hand testimony? The dead are dead- they don’t come back. As a good Jew, and like Martha, Thomas believed in the resurrection at the end of the world, but not before.

Thomas had been with Jesus for maybe three years. He had seen what Jesus did, he had heard what Jesus taught. He was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. In Jewish belief, the Messiah was the True King that God would send to bring Israel back from its long estrangement from God, and usher in a new world-order of peace and justice, not just for Israel alone, but for all the nations. New heavens, and a new earth. This was the Hope of Israel, God’s wayward people. Thomas hoped in Jesus, and then Jesus died; and not just died, but was put to death in the most cruel and shameful way. It was not that Thomas ceased to love Jesus his friend and master; but his hope was gone. His friends may have had some sort of vision, they may have seen a ghost- but for Thomas to believe, he needed to see with his own eyes, touch with his own hands.

And eight days later, Jesus comes again, and this time Thomas is there. Think about those eight days, for Thomas. A week in which everyone else is full of joy, full of conviction, while he simply does not know what to think- but he stays with his friends. He does not go off on his own. He remains part of the family. So when Jesus comes, Thomas is ready. When Jesus comes, Thomas does not need to perform all his tests and procedures. And he goes further. This is not just the teacher he has followed for three years, a human being like himself. Human, yes- but much more! The God of Israel himself has manifested himself and is present before him! Jesus almost teases him- “Come on, Thomas, touch, feel! Make certain!” But Thomas simply replies, “My Lord and my God!” The Resurrection means the new world has begun!

Some time ago I read how a famous writer and historian lost his faith after a friend died. He had been a conventional believer, but suddenly, God was gone. “There was no God, and I had no faith…I no longer believed, no longer even wanted to believe.” There are many people who can relate to that, after the death of someone they love, maybe after they have prayed and prayed for a different outcome. While there was life, there was hope. Now, they feel literally hopeless and numb. What is there left for them to believe in?

But eventually, faith returned. The writer realised that he was faced with a choice between a bleak and valueless world, and one where love and forgiveness were at least possibilities. Sitting in Church one Sunday, watching others walking up to the altar, he was overwhelmed with a sense of companionship, gratitude and joy. Reflecting on this, he realised that in one sense he had made his choice, and yet in another sense it was a gift he had received. Like Thomas he had to wait. He could not simply force himself to believe. But he did not abandon his friends who did believe, but whose faith  and hope he could not yet share. And when faith returned, it was at the same time both his own choice, and a gift from God. He had not, literally, touched the Lord- but God had touched him.

In our first reading, the prophet is waiting for a word from God, a word of comfort in a time of trial. But God only says, “The vision you want is waiting for the proper time. It’s surely coming, though it seems slow to you. Wait patiently, and trust me.” In our second lesson, St Paul reminds us that we are none of us foreigners in God’s kingdom, we are citizens, fellow citizens with the saints. The Church on earth and the Church in heaven are one family, or like a building partly complete and partly still under construction. We are the part that is still work in progress, and like all work in progress that can be full of frustration and disappointment. Sometimes it is very hard to hope. That is when we must remember that the greatest virtue is neither faith nor hope, important as these are. The greatest thing is to love: to love the God who made us with all our hearts; and to love each other, made in God’s image, as we love ourselves. God, though unseen, loves us; and so, still, do all those we love, but see no longer.

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